by Trevor Sheffield

The Raydist tower at Cape Leveque in 1965.
Photo: Trevor Sheffield
In March 1964, I left Sydney for Weipa with Reg Nelson. Our first stop was Cairns and it was wet. The wet season had not ended. Reg organised a boat to meet us in Weipa to provide transportation for ground crew and food and supplies within the Gulf. We then took off for Weipa and the Comalco camp. We bunked down in the Comalco camp using their facilities and waited for the ship, the Malita.

The Malita was a 72 foot ferry with a 5 cylinder diesel engine (eight foot long) and it required an engineer to operate it under the captain’s bridge instruction. Top speed of the Malita was less than 10 knots and its draft was 6 foot. We had a number of incidents where the Malita ran aground unexpectedly.

When the Malita arrived Reg and I went aboard and Reg guided us to the Love River south of Arakuun. The river did not appear on any maps we had but was where we would find the trig station marker necessary to locate the Raydist tower. We went ashore up the Love River and I followed Reg through the bush toward the coast where he found the marker. I have no idea how Reg knew where he was going. This was native bush that had probably never seen a white man.

Having established that this was where the first ground station was to be, we off loaded some camping equipment and Reg went back aboard the Malita. I stayed ashore alone for the next two weeks. When Bob Woodford arrived we setup the Raydist tent, erected the aerial and gave it a test run. Our test run was very high-tech and involved starting the 2-stroke generator and ensuring that it was charging the 12volt battery. We found that we could start the generator early in the morning and go fishing for the day and the generator and Raydist would still be going when we got back. We just had to make sure that it had plenty of fuel (petrol). Up at Crab Island I ran out of petrol one time but it went quite well on kerosene.

Toward the end of June I was required to go to Duyfken Point to setup the second ground station. Duyfken Point is at the entrance to Weipa and features a cairn in memory of the Dutch ship that discover Australia in 1606. Bob McGarrity was sent to assist me and be my cook and Jess Boots Wilkins came to check out the Raydist. Neither station had had a full blown test as the DC-3 VH-AGU had not been sighted.

After a few weeks Bob had to leave. He had become somewhat distracted so that his behaviour and dress was very weird. Allan Bluebeard Bringolf was able to fill in for him and enjoyed catching some fish. He was replaced by his brother.

We had forgotten to set ourselves up with base to base communication. I guess this was because we had not envisaged being so alone for so long. We could go for months without actually seeing anyone. The Love River was particularly bad as the Malita would not attempt entering the river having been aground a couple of times. Water was sent in (44 gall drums) and some food though we had little need for much food – we had more fish than we could eat, crabs, oysters, turkey and a few wild pigs, thank you Captain Cook. There were no rabbits which surprised me.

I was interested in shortwave radio and began listening when we were setup at Duyfken Point. There was not a lot happening but I did pick up a group using Raydist, I think off New Guinea. They had been having some problems and it was interesting to hear about them. They were using a huge diesel engine and were having quite a few problems. They had heard that we were running kerosene refrigerators (second hand & worth about 20 quid). Apparently ours was a much better option than theirs. Our whole system was based on natural reserves (open fire) kerosene lamps and natural gas stoves. In other words our system was cheap but it was very effective.

I cannot remember when VH-AGU became available but it was very late and our whole survey as very late. We had to pull out at the beginning of the wet season and when I returned to Thursday Island it was still wet and we had lost the Malita. It had been burnt while ashore at Cooktown. Our replacement vessel was the Alaskan, a 36 foot twin engine fishing vessel.

We attempted to establish a ground station at the mouth of the Jardine River which left us facing Prince of Wales Island. This position did not work out so we moved to the point opposite Crab Island. The second station was at Mapoon.

Due to the fact that we were so late in carrying out this survey during the last part and VH-AGU was based on Horn Island, it was taking off early and after being in the air over an hour would radio in that they had just taken off. Their landing was very nerve wracking to us as we knew they were heading in to land but would lose contact and never knew, till the next day, if they had landed safely.

On arriving back in Sydney I was given instruction to go to Broome and find the trig points for the next survey. On arrival in Broome I rented a Land Rover and drove up to Cape Leveque. It was just over 202km via a dirt road from Broome. There was a light house occupied by two families and a small landing strip – too small for the DC-3. Locating the trig spot was dead easy as it was right in front of where I wanted to pitch the main tent.

The next trig spot was at Beagle Bay. Beagle Bay is a huge mission property covering hundreds of acres of bush, sand, mud and corrugated sections. The trig point would be close to the beach but a long way from the mission. I had a scout around but realised it would take a lot of searching to locate it. I returned to Broome to meet up with some crew that had been sent via Perth complete with a rented truck filled with gear.

The group included Roger Egan, Fred Ellis, Nancy Ellis, Jess Boots Wilkins, Allan Bluebeard Bringolf, Bluebeard’s brother and a host of people whose names I have forgotten. Miles Lewis, George Crutchfield, and the DC-3 also arrived. I rounded them all up and we set off to locate the Beagle Bay trig point. We had trouble deciding who was going to drive and as a result Fred Ellis took charge of the truck and reshaped it on the road north. The road north looked simple enough, but as Fred found out, it was very tricky.

Miles Lewis took charge of the Land Rover with disastrous results. As a pilot Miles was definitely not used to mud flats or the depth they could reach. Faster was not better. It took quite a lot of effort to get the Land Rover free and out of that area.

After some days we located the trig point and established the Raydist site then moved up to Cape Leveque to set it up. Both these stations were initially single aerial (Raydist) only as we had no other radio equipment. The aerials were 110 foot long, each station being fitted with one aerial supported by Dacron rope. There were only two ground stations active at any time and they both transmitted a signal all day (When switched on). In theory, when AGU was active it would be flying 200 mile out to sea then returning to the north or south then repeating the exercise so that, in effect, the area was covered in blocks of 200 square mile. This together with magnetometer readings and Raydist plotting meant that a very effective ground coverage was affected.